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The story comes with dust on it, from out of Robert Parish's considerable past. The place is Shreveport, La., the time is the early 1970s. The college recruiters are making nuisances of themselves, trying to lure Parish, then a tall, shy youngster from Woodlawn High, to their respective campuses.
One petitioner approaches the Parish family house and knocks on the screen door, but there is no answer. He knocks again, and this time a reply comes in the faint tick tick tick tick tick of little canine feet moving rapidly across a bare floor. Through a missing panel at the bottom of the screen door emerges the Parishes' dachshund, yapping its head off. The visitor turns tail and scrambles onto the hood of his car, where he remains marooned until Robert, who is watching from the living room, sees fit to call the pooch off.
"I remember that dog," Parish said recently, nodding when the tale was recounted to him." Very good dog."
The story says a lot about Robert Parish: that you approach him respectfully, and on his terms; that, although he is divorced, he considers home just as good a place to be as any; and that he knows the rewards of keeping the world at arm's length. Parish is 37, the oldest player in the NBA, yet he is giving the Boston Celtics perhaps the finest effort of his career. For the ninth time in 15 NBA seasons he is an All-Star. With percentages of .601 and .787 as of Sunday, he is easily on his way to personal bests in field goal and free throw shooting, respectively; and, with an average of 10.2 a game, he is in the midst of one of his most productive rebounding years. What is most telling—for statistics aren't the measure of the man—is that the Celtics are comfortably leading the Atlantic Division.
After 11 seasons in Boston, under four coaches, through three championships-only George Mikan, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have played center for as many title teams—Parish is quietly, proudly and inexorably still there.
Seems as if Parish, a.k.a. the Chief, has followed Satchel Paige's Six Rules for Staying Young.
Rule No. 1: Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.
"I agree," says Parish. "I stay away from fried anything."
There was a time when he didn't, when he would ingest all things at all hours. That was before he discovered ginseng, racquetball, swimming, mellow jazz, treadmill work, kung fu ("for reflexes"), weight training, a red-meat-free diet, saunas ("to sweat out all those impurities") and good old-fashioned temperance. "It only took me about 15 years to realize that alcohol dehydrates the body," he says. By integrating all these things into his life he has become...well, consider this: When Parish's agent, Bob Woolf, began negotiating a deal for another long-in-the-tooth client, 33-year-old Chicago center Bill Cartwright, he tried to use Parish as a reference point. "No, let's not talk about Parish," said Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. "He's a freak. A body like that comes along once in a century."
Parish abused his body during his tenure with the Golden State Warriors, for whom, lest we forget, he played for four frustrating seasons between 1976 and 1980. The fans and the press in the Bay Area mistook his loping gait for indolence and his poker face for indifference. They assumed that because he didn't show emotions, he didn't have any. "I looked like I didn't care if we won or lost," he says. "Like I had no fire. But I'm a very competitive person. If I wasn't, I wouldn't be here today."